The Question We’ll Ask
We’re going to wonder about you for a long time.
I came to you as an immigrant when I was six years old, moving with my family from Canada. My parents planned to live in New England for two years and then return. We had lots of family up north. But my father, whose multiple sclerosis had been firmly diagnosed when I was three, got worse, and his slow deterioration required our family to tighten our bonds, give to each other, live one day at a time, laugh as often as we could, and remain in New England.
My mother hated you, America. She spoke of Canadian goodness large and small: crisp clean winters, polite people, maple syrup, traffic signals with flashing greens, free healthcare. She’d hang up the phone, incensed, having fought another battle with an insurance company, and she’d feel helplessly stuck in place, in a foreign country she could no longer leave, raising two children while her husband got sicker. Then she’d laugh, smile, and bake cookies.
My brother and I defended you. We had no interest in resenting our situation. Our father was a hilarious, fighting spirit. If we were bad, boy, could he yell. An angry man in a wheelchair is a fearsome thing. We were young enough to believe in the oldest of clichés: America is the greatest country ever. Look around! Greatness. And our parents had brought us here.
Yet I remember one evening in second grade, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the public school’s dimmed auditorium with the other children, watching my classmate, who I’ll call Sally, perform in a musical. A few feet away from me sat Justin, Sally’s younger, deaf brother, his face shadowed from the stage lighting as he gazed up at his sister. As the show went on, the boys around me whispered horrible things about Justin, mocking him—making fun of his deafness, the way his voice sounded, the way he looked—while he sat, proud of his sister, unknowing.
That evening I cried about what I’d seen, telling my parents about Justin. Since that day, I’ve understood that maliciousness toward the helpless is the worst behavior a human can exhibit. Children can be particularly ignorant and cruel, of course, and many grow up into fine, giving, kind adults. But not all. Adults can remain ruthlessly cruel.
Now I’m in mid-life. Have studied, read, lived, learned. Made mistakes, found successes. Met thousands of good people from all varieties of background. I’ve married a beautiful woman whose kind parents immigrated from Taiwan. My two inspiring step-children are Asian-American. We live a robust, blended family-life filled with laughter and discussion. We teach and learn from each other. I work hard at a few things that I’m good at, but I still carry some naïve views: I want other people to be happy. People I know, and people I don’t. All people.
America, I know now that many of the ideas you champion aren’t true. You hold no limitless frontiers. And many of your once-frontiers required killing the people who already lived there. Perhaps you once were the land of opportunity—but only for certain types of people. Typically, white people. Most of your real economic labor was accomplished via slavery or another form of immigrant labor often working in appalling conditions. In factories, building railroads, picking fruit or cotton. For every wealthy person who’s succeeded with a business or idea and made millions or billions, thousands of people are crushed by a capitalist economy in which they cannot succeed. And many of your wealthiest accept poverty and suffering—in others.
A capitalist democracy has its pluses, to be sure, but your system is weighted for the privileged. It can be unfair, selfish, and cruel. And you prefer empty rhetoric over critical thinking. Your Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” a seemingly uplifting phrase that points to some sort of magical origin for equality. But it doesn’t say “all people are treated equally” and there’s a real difference. Your government officials, let alone citizens, say cruel things daily, even eagerly. They craft laws to take money away from people who don’t have much to begin with.
As I’ve mentioned, America, adults can be ruthlessly cruel. Let’s recall when Donald Trump, campaigning for the presidency, mocked a disabled reporter. Trump stood at a podium with his hands bent at the wrist, flailing them in an imitation of joint contracture, the muscular stiffness and spasticity any neuro-muscular disability can cause, and he affected his voice to lampoon the man further. At that moment, it became clear: Trump is as mean as they come.
America: you fooled so many of us. We thought you couldn’t support such a person in the government’s top job. Presidents may engage in bad behavior—authorizing illegal air strikes on a country like Cambodia during a war, sleeping with people who aren’t their spouse, breaking into opponents’ headquarters—and we know they’re not perfect people. We may not trust them fully, but we still want them to be able leaders, with a surface in which we can perhaps see our own reflection. We want inspiration, intelligence, diplomacy, and, well, kindness.
As Trump campaigned, it was almost too easy to educate my children about his infantile nature. Countless examples of his behavior illustrate racism, cruelty, deception, greed, narcissism, misogyny, xenophobia, hypocrisy, and immaturity. His election seemed impossible. It was inconceivable to me that the voting public could do such a demoralizing thing to itself. I reassured my children that we’d moved beyond the era of the Nazis, of lynchings. Of selfishness parading as strength.
Yet now there are situations happening daily in which citizens harass other citizens. It can be as simple as someone pointing to my family in the Angels stadium parking lot and saying, Look, Asians. Or it can be truly mean: epithets, names. Go back to your own country.
My stepdaughter taught me about soba noodles, a Japanese dish. My stepson taught me that Asian family gatherings were slyly called Asian parties. I taught them how to use a drill, a saw. We discuss preferences for rice balls or cereal or sushi or beef tongue. Korean food versus hot pot versus Olive Garden. We know how much love can exist amid differences and mutual respect.
America, when you’ve changed leadership, when we’ve moved on from 45 and, perhaps, recovered, we’ll still be wondering. A cruel man declared that people who look different are bad, and people applauded him. They chose their neighbor as their enemy. The foul exclusivity your clichés had always tried to deny were suddenly championed. And you’ve paid for it, America. You mock the helpless, the different, but the truth is, right now, you’re the one in the wheelchair. You may still parade your clichés from time to time, but the irony is alarming. The entire United Nations laughed—while he was speaking—in the face of the man in your top job.
We’re fighting even harder now for inclusivity and equity, for diversity and equality, for kindness and understanding. To remember that what makes a country great is its diversity. That homogeneity is boring. And whether it takes a war or a natural disaster or something even worse to make your citizens remember they’re all the same, the question we’ll ask down the road isn’t how people like Donald Trump exist and succeed in this world. We know they do. We’ll ask how you could choose him to lead the country.
We’ll all have our memories, our little scars. What I remember most from election night, November 8, 2016, when it was clear that something had gone wrong for the country: our daughter, calling us from her college dorm room, having watched exactly what we watched, to say to her parents, in the smallest of voices: I’m scared.
Andrew C. Gottlieb
Read other Letters to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.
Read three poems by Andrew C. Gottlieb appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo by Darren Baker, courtesy Shutterstock.